Old wine in a new bottle

Capstone City

Despite its various benefits, sustainable living in the city isn’t a popular choice.

It was during the early years of 2000, when she and her husband thought about shifting to Bengaluru. All that they wanted was a house of their own, which is sustainable in some way. After extensive research and years later, it was in 2014 when Sonia Sharma and her husband moved into their sustainable house. 

Going back in time, Sonia said that it was the thought of getting the house painted after the gap of every four-five year that put them to thinking about a house which would not require painting.

Their house is made of stabilized mud blocks with a variety of other green housing features. A natural waste water treatment plant, along with rain water harvesting system which annually saves 50,000 liters of rain water. 

Sharma said, “Today, we are kind of completely living a sustainable life. My house is made of mud blocks. The stabilized mud blocks don’t need any painting.”

She talks about the benefits of using these facilities. “Through our rain water harvesting, we save up to 50,000 liters of rain water every year, which we use for our consumption too,” she continues, “instead of using any mechanical system to filter the water, a REED BED system is used to treat the waste water from the kitchen, shower and washing area.”

Having faced frequent power cuts, Sonia understands the importance of having 24/7 electricity. Most of their electricity comes from the energy that is generated through the solar power panels.

Moreover, during the day time, she does not have to switch on lights. “Not a single corner needs additional light because of the availability of ample sunlight. The windows are structured in a way that sunlight is enough to lighten up the house,” she added.

The city has changed tremendously over the last two-three decades, which has led to an immediate need for housing that is environmentally friendly. Shalini Chandrashekar, co-founder of Taliesyn, a sustainable architecture company;they have been working in the field of environmentally friendly construction for the last 11 years in Bengaluru, she added. “Right now, we’re focused on building sustainably in terms of materials and process of construction. Also, in terms of sourcing, we are trying to reduce the carbon footprint.”

She explained why sustainable housing is picking up in the city. “Earlier Bangalore was known for its greenery. This is not the case anymore. All of this is because of urbanization.”

Chandrashekar added that things started going haywire probably two or three decades back when there was a rampant construction of buildings. “People were looking for a quick turnaround. They did not give much thought as to how these building is going to be sustained in the long run,” she said.

Similar to the problems stated above, Aditya Mahajan, a professional gamer has been living in Jaya Prakesh Nagar for some months now, expressed his problems. The house he is residing with his fellow team members is in a congested locality.

He describes his living conditions to be within tightly confined spaces. He said that there is lack of privacy; the house located so close that every sound you make at your place can be heard in the adjacent house.

The houses are structured with no space between the houses. The edge of one house is the boundary wall of the other house. “So, say in an event of natural disaster or if a fire breaks out, one will struggle to escape,” he added.

He also said that most of the time they are depended on electric gadgets, so any power cuts are unbearable, “We feel suffocated due to the lack of enough ventilation.”

Niladri Rai, a green apartment owner in Bengaluru explained why he switched to a green building apartment. “Before shifting to this green building, I was living in KR Puram market near the Tin Factory,” he continued, “So, apart from the excessive pollution, it is a completely congested area, where you step out of the house and you will be in the middle of the traffic.”

“We wanted better facilities. Sustainable living was always on our mind,”Rai added. He shifted to his green home in 2020.

But he understands that in today’s time, one can’t completely stay out of pollution. However, opting for green buildings are better any day. “Our house is better ventilated, the way the water filtration works, and the sewage system, in general, these apartments are safer in terms of health.”

Most of the big green building projects are located away from the center of the city. However, Rai believes that even though the property is located far away from the city, today nothing is far away. “All the facilities reach us through online delivery channels. It really does not matter. Staying away from the city is actually good, you are away from the noise pollution, air pollution,” he added.

For him green buildings are affordable, “I think living in these apartments is worth the money.”

Today, if a conventional house costs Rs. 1.5-2 cr for 3000 square feet. It would almost be the same as building a sustainable house. In fact, it might go more than what is spent in building a normal house. So, the more features you add, the higher the prices go, explained Sharma.

Tallulah D’ Silva has been working as a sustainable architecture for more than 20 years now. Her surroundings and childhood had played a major role in making her environmental conscious.

Presently based in Goa, she explained what goes into building a sustainable house/ building. “Basically, it is an approach where the negative impacts of building can be minimised both during the course of construction as well as during the life of the building,” she said. Constructing sustainable houses take much longer than the conventional houses. This is attributed to various factors depending on the materials and process used in building one, she added.

Sharma elaborated to explain the investment of time and efforts in building a sustainable house, “For example, while building a regular house, the builder would get ready made bricks. Cement blocks helps in construction of the base structure within four-five months.” She continued, “But for green houses, if I talk about mud blocks, then the mud blocks themselves take around three-four months.”

Also, in regular building, the weight is borne by the pillars and not the walls. This is the opposite for green buildings. The weight is borne by the walls instead of the pillars. “It is an extremely slow process and is labour intensive. Each and every step is a work of art,” Sharma quoted.

Expensive – A myth or not

While Mahajan is on rent, he wants to soon shift out to a better place. But green buildings are not on his list of housing options. “Even with a decent monthly income, I can’t afford to buy a green property, which cost around Rs. 1.25 crore in Bengaluru.”

He said that he would prefer to shift to a green apartment any day. For him, better living conditions is the priority. In fact, he is even willing to pay three – five lakh more than the price of a regular apartment, but that is not enough to afford a luxury like sustainable living, he said.

In the construction of conventional building, less emphasis is laid on natural resources. “But, in green building, here as you can see those windows, they are constructed in a way that more of natural sunlight comes, and obviously with light, there comes better ventilation system,” Gopal PK, project manager, Mantri Lithios explained.

“So, if I talk about construction of green building, then because we are not using a lot of materials, construction cost comes down by 15 – 20 per cent,” he added.

However, Kerala based founder and architect of Dsign Architects, Ayyappan Gouthaman’s understanding of the cost of construction is different. He explained that the cost to build green buildings tend to be more than the amount involved in constructing conventional buildings.

“Natural building costs more because we use very skilled workers, the process of construction is much longer – stage by stage process. Again, because of the use of proper raw material processing method and treatment systems, the cost goes up,” he added.

According to S N Ullas, professor, Center for Sustainable Technologies (CST), Indian Institute of Sciences, Bengaluru, buildings become expensive for various reasons. One might save a lot by opting out of getting the house painted. But if one ends up installing expensive sanitary products, such as a Jacuzzi in the bathroom; it adds to the cost of construction. “Now you can’t say that mine is a green building but still it is expensive. Again, one might go for expensive finishes – like using teak which is Rs. 6000 – 7000 per square foot instated of timber which is Rs.1500 per square foot. Both are natural material, green in nature, but depending on the material used, the cost goes up/down. So, you can call it in an expensive green building or not; cost is something entirely different.”

Even D’Silva believes that sustainable housing can be economically if one wants. “It all depends on your budget – if you want a sustainable house, then you can have one,” she said.

The standard rate for building a conventional house is Rs. 2200 per square foot. But for a mud house or more ecological house will cost you much less Rs. 1500 to 1800 per square foot, she added.

But are the green buildings really expensive, or is it just a myth. According to D’Silva green buildings/ housing can be expensive with 10-15 per cent more costs incurred but if one plans and use materials within the budget, these can be economical.

Traditional is the way

D’Silva explained how to differentiate a green building from a conventional building.  “Obviously green structures are more natural looking; all of those traditional buildings that you see are largely green buildings.”

The concept of sustainable living has evolved from the traditional housing. “Initially, when I started my practice in, like 1999, most of my clients were from the rural areas.” They were guava farmers in the villages and despite not having formal education like that from schools and colleges, they had immense traditional knowledge,” she said.

D’Silva said, “Our ancestors and people living in villages have far more sound knowledge of building green buildings than we do in cities, even with a formal education.”

Today, sustainable living has become a global thing. Urban cities across the globe are coming up with different methods of sustainable living. But if we go back in time, the idea of sustainable living has evolved from those traditional housing, said Ullas.

“The idea of sustainable housing was developed to improve the living conditions of the rural area. “But as time progressed, many of these concepts were picked up by urban people. Though it was initially meant for villagers it became more popular in urban societies,” he added.

The Rating System

In India, there is the method of certification. A building can be certified as green or not by applying to institutions like LEED and GRIHA.  The latest data from the Indian Green Building Council (IGBC) shows that in Bengaluru there are 300 certified residential green buildings.

Ullas said that the rating system is faulty and has many loopholes, “such as, these certifications can be used as a marketing tool by the building companies. Or the builders may be earning carbon credits when construction is on a large scale; then there is the value of recognition in the society,” he said.

He raises the relevancy of the certification and continued, “say for example, I get my house certified, and keep that certificate in some cupboard. Now, how will someone know whether my house is green or not?”

The case is different for individual buyers or small enterprises. They don’t want to go in for the rating because the buyers are conscious about the materials, method and overall outcome, which is making buildings more comfortable to live in, D’Silva added.

She said that a lot of homeowners today are conscious. They prefer for opting out of ratings. However, that is not the same for big builders. “They are going for the rating to be able to sell the properties it at a premium,” she said.

According to her, the trend around building sustainable building is not in the right spirit. But the intention is there. “Still all of it fails because without the right spirit; the consumers are left confused. Also, many of these big projects have air conditioners, right?”

Even Ullas has a similar thought. “Basically, the idea of getting certified may largely be motivated with a company’s self-interest,” said Ullas.

Talking about certification, Chanrashekar said that as of now they have not applied for it, but they plan to, “We have not applied for our projects yet. But from where we’ll get a LEED certification, we are working towards it.”

Challenges in the sustainable housing

One of the most common and biggest challenge in developing green housing is the lack of understating of the concept.

Ayyappan elaborates on the issues created due to the unawareness towards sustainability.

“I feel very difficult to move forward with this plan of sustainability. Basically, people here are not aware of sustainable architecture.”  Seven years ago, when he started his company, the plan was to build natural and green buildings. But people’s lack of positive response to such concepts has made it difficult for us to keep up with the initial idea.

Another issue is public’s negative attitude towards sustainability. “Their thinking is based on the method of construction, so if it is an old method, they think we are selling an old building. They have a lot of issues with the look of these buildings,” he added.

People are unaware because information about sustainability is missing from the academic system, Ullas said. “Forget about common people, even the engineering graduates don’t know much about such concept. There’s a general lack of awareness of green/ sustainable building.”

Akshay Kumar, a resident in Bengaluru said that where he currently stays is sufficiently green. There is proper ventilation and ample amount of sunlight. But that is him being lucky, “if I were staying in an apartment that has no proper sunlight, in a fully congested area, I would definitely shift to a green building,” he said.

Even through the concept is slower in being adopted by the residents of the city, he said that in the upcoming years, sustainable living will grow on the people.

Rising awareness

Chandrashekar said that tax reduction on building and purchasing green houses and buildings will act as a push factor for the public to switch to sustainable housing, “the minute you know, you reduce the taxes, people will automatically choose that particular product.” 

Concessions are important for promoting anything new, for example in terms of solar power, one can give the extra generated energy to the government in return for reduction in electricity bills. It has worked positively for adoption of solar power, she added.

For Ayyappan the possible solution towards lack of general knowledge could be addressed if sustainable engineering is taken up by colleges and architecture schools. “I was introduced to this concept in my masters’ programme when I had a subject on sustainability.” So, if it is added to the architecture curriculum, it will be better.

It can be introduced for two years, in which classes would be conducted on sustainable building, visits to construction sites. Students would end up with a better understanding of what is sustainable and what isn’t, the processes of building green structures, and the need to protect the resources for future generation, he added.

The government can come up with an additional housing census, every four or ten years. Or if not census then an extra column can be added to the national census – to filter out which building is green. “The thing is, no building can be completely green; so, one can categorize it as partially green, half green, etc. This task can be taken by the engineering departments,” proposed Ullas.

Sandeep Anirudhian, an environmentalist in the city brings the past and present together to explain the impact of urbanization on the city’s environment. “In 1970, Bengaluru had 70 per cent green cover. Today, it is down to one per cent. The figures are shocking and this means we have destroyed our green cover in the last five decades due to excessive urbanization.”

“So, there is nothing left in the city other than concrete and human beings,” he added.


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